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American Journalism Review
Follow the Leader  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   November 1993

Follow the Leader   

When covering the Third World, major U.S. newspapers take their cues from the White House.

By Ken Silverstein
Ken Silverstein is coeditor of the Washington-based political newsletter Counter Punch and coauthor of the new book, "Washington Babylon."     


Remember Grenada? No, it's not a car, and it's not a syrup made from pomegranates. Perhaps vague memories come to mind? A breezy, tropical island..American medical students..commies running rampant. That's it – the rescue mission! Whatever happened to that place?

After briefly rocketing into the media spotlight in the early 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan labeled the tiny Caribbean island a dire threat, Grenada has plummeted from the news horizon like a stricken SCUD missile.

Press treatment of the country is typical of the media's approach to the Third World. The guidelines are simple. Rule No. 1: Third World nations are largely ignored until the White House, almost always for reasons of national security, puts one on the map. Rule No. 2: Once the perceived national security threat fades, the country in question falls back into irrelevance and obscurity.

At a panel discussion hosted by the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center last March, Robert MacNeil of the "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" endorsed this approach to foreign news. The president, he said, "is like the chief passenger on the cruise ship. When he goes to the rail and points at something, that's interesting for the rest of the passengers." Editors generally agree that it makes sense to follow the president's lead, though they say the press also pursues foreign stories on its own.

The exceptions to the chief passenger rule are the whimsical "letter from" style stories on the curious natives, such as the dispatches filed earlier this year on the aspirations of navy officials in land-locked Bolivia, or the traditional "time appears to have bypassed the remote backlands of [fill-in-the-blank], where residents still churn their own butter." However, barring presidential finger-pointing, a Third World nation is likely to receive U.S. media attention only if it is the site of a natural disaster, a civil war, massacre or some other major act of violence; if its leader visits Washington; or if it refuses to pay its debts to U.S. banks.

The media's approach lets the president frame the nation's foreign policy agenda for the Third World. It also misinforms the public and undermines democratic policy-making, especially since congressional staffs rely heavily on the press for information about world events.

Mark Hertsgaard, author of "On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency," says the media's willingness to follow the White House lead would be "appalling" to the Founding Fathers. "The whole idea of a free press is to inform debate generally, not just on what the president thinks is important," he says. "That plays right into the hands of government. It's one of the greatest weaknesses of our coverage."

The coverage of Grenada, Afghanistan, Panama, Kuwait and Somalia over the last two decades by the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal clearly demonstrates the follow-the-chief-passenger principle. It also shows how the media emphasize the same themes as the White House and

generally offer uncritical support for the official line when trouble erupts.



Grenada

The island of Grenada aroused little media interest until the U.S. invasion in 1983, though in the mid-1970s reporters occasionally discussed the looniness of Prime Minister Eric Gairy, an accomplished bartender whose pet interests included extraterrestrial life, UFOs and yoga. "Ah knoooow dat da people luv me," he was quoted as saying in a September 1976 Washington Post profile by Courtland Milloy. "Cause dey tell me soooo. Don't yoooou?" Another Post story the following year, "Pleasant, Poor Grenada Takes Its Lead From Happy Barman," featured "grinning" natives inhabiting a "tropical paradise" almost "too pleasant to be believed."

But soon there was trouble in paradise, and Grenada became a major news item. Of course, the focus was not really on Grenada, but on whether that country – whose entire population could fit in the Rose Bowl – represented a beachhead for Soviet expansionism, as the Reagan administration claimed. The administration was particularly alarmed by leftist Prime Minister Maurice Bishop's decision to lengthen the runway at Grenada's airport. Reagan charged that the project, which had support from Cuba, was undertaken to accommodate Soviet MIG fighters; Bishop responded that the longer runway was needed for larger commercial planes to boost tourism.

After Bishop was murdered by rivals, Reagan dispatched the U.S. Marines, claiming they were needed to restore order and rescue American medical students studying on the island. Ultimately the new pro-American government completed the airport project with help from Canada. Large commercial jets can now land there.

How did the media respond following the U.S. intervention? For a few years, the press checked in on the country, often in the form of an annual review. Joseph Treaster of the New York Times filed virtually the same story four years in a row:

In March 1985, he found:

Frenetic home improvement: "People are painting their houses and adding extra rooms..."

Generous U.S. aid: "Basic services..[are] being improved and expanded with millions of dollars in United States aid."

Road building: "Men and women with shovels, wheelbarrows and asphalt are patching roads."

Unemployment: "..still running about 30 percent."

In August 1986, he found:

Frenetic home improvement: "Dozens of Grenadians..have returned and are building houses all across the island."

Generous U.S. aid: "The United States has poured more than $80 million into Grenada since the invasion."

Road building: "[Foreign aid has] rebuilt bridges and repaved the major roads."

Unemployment: "..dropped from about 35 percent to about 25 percent..."

In October 1987, he found:

Frenetic home improvement: "Grenadians have sunk their money into small hotels, gift shops and restaurants, and many are building houses... You can almost hear the money jingling in Grenadian pockets."

Generous U.S. aid: "Some $90 million in United States aid poured in..."

Road building: "Grenada now has some of the smoothest roads in the Caribbean."

Unemployment: "..still high, estimated somewhere in the 20 to 30 percent range."

And in October 1988, he again found:

Frenetic home improvement: "New houses and stores are going up. Old ones are being painted."

Generous U.S. aid: "The United States has pumped in $110 million in economic aid."

Road building: "..the roads are smooth black ribbons."

Unemployment: "..which may be as high as 30 percent, remains a worry."

Much of Treaster's upbeat reporting was highly questionable. For example, by 1987, when one could "almost hear the money jingling" in native pockets, Prime Minister Herbert Blaize had shut down numerous state-run enterprises and fired one in seven public employees, and 2 percent of the population was emigrating annually.

Other reports were more skeptical, such as a February 1986 Wall Street Journal piece by Thomas Ricks ("jobs are short, drugs abound, and young people are leaving in droves") and a Post article in October 1988 by Alan Tomlinson, "Prosperity Eludes Grenada 5 Years After Invasion."

But the media's attention span lasted only five years. The annual review is gone and Grenada has been eliminated from U.S. newspapers. Between 1989 and 1992, the four newspapers surveyed ran a combined total of 13 stories on the country, four of which were on the murder there of a U.S. diplomat. Not a single story on Grenada was filed last year.

Treaster, now based in New York City, explains, "Grenada is a small country, and each year there was a bit of progression but not major developments. At times it seemed difficult to come up with a new story each year." He defends his sanguine coverage, but says, "Maybe I missed something. I hope I wasn't looking at it with rose-colored glasses."



Afghanistan

At one time, "Afghanistanism" was a term used to describe coverage of obscure, largely irrelevant countries. And prior to being invaded by the Soviet Union in 1979, Afghanistan was the subject of no more than a handful of annual newspaper stories (except during a few years of major political turmoil). Many are classic examples of the exotically datelined "letter-from-nowhere" genre. Samples from the mid-1970s include "Sheep – A Way of Life in Afghanistan" from the Washington Post, and life among nomads, "pastoral people who spend their lives..looking for grass for their goats and sheep," reported by the New York Times.

In December 1973 – when detente was at its zenith – the Wall Street Journal ran a rare front page story on the country, titled "Do the Russians Covet Afghanistan? If So, It's Hard to Figure Why." Reporter Peter Kann, now the Journal's chairman and publisher, wrote that "great power strategists tend to think of Afghanistan as a kind of fulcrum upon which the world balance of power tips... But from close up, Afghanistan tends to look less like a fulcrum or a domino or a stepping-stone than like a vast expanse of desert waste with a few fly-ridden bazaars, a fair number of feuding tribes and a lot of miserably poor people."

After the Soviets invaded in late 1979 to prop up a friendly regime, this vast wasteland suddenly acquired the status of a precious geopolitical prize. A Journal editorial following the Soviet takeover said Afghanistan was "more serious than a mere stepping-stone," and, in response, called for increased military outlays, the basing of U.S. troops in the Middle East, expanded covert operations and reinstatement of draft registration. Drew Middleton, then a New York Times defense correspondent, filed a post-invasion analysis in January 1980 that must have sent readers diving for the nearest bomb shelter. "The conventional wisdom in the Pentagon," he wrote, "is that in purely military terms, [after the invasion] the Russians are in a far better position vis-a-vis the United States than Hitler was against Britain and France in 1939."

This was part of a wave of saturation coverage, with the New York Times alone listing more than 18 pages of stories on Afghanistan in its 1980 index. Most of the U.S. media blindly endorsed government scare-mongering, though Kann's earlier evaluation was far more accurate.

The same uncritical scrutiny continued throughout the war against Soviet occupation, with the U.S. news media faithfully echoing the government's portrayal of pitched battle between good and evil. This was most apparent in the almost unanimous approval journalists expressed for the Afghan guerrilla movement, the mujahedin, whose most powerful members were fundamentalist groups that rival the Iran-backed Hezbollah in their rabidness.

Reporters headed to Pakistan in droves to meet with guerrilla leaders, invariably returning to file glowing tributes to the mujahedin. A September 1986 column by the Post's Stephen Rosenfeld described the guerrillas as freedom fighters telling "heart-rending stories of struggle"; their leaders were "shrewd" and "tough"; the Soviet invasion had put the "Red Army..one pawn closer to the Persian Gulf."

Then-New York Times Executive Editor A.M. Rosenthal, like many of his colleagues, rejected the notion that the guerrillas were religious extremists. "From the United States, the Afghan resistance..appears splintered, full of feuds and feudalism, led by leaders with conflicting ambitions and full of intensities and tribal loyalties," he wrote. "Seen nearer, the leaders and followers become not just fierce-looking warriors but living people, worried about their families, food and the future."

Unfortunately, Rosenthal's assessment in his first line proved to be a devastatingly accurate portrayal, and helps explain the chaos into which Afghanistan has fallen since the mujahedin triumphed. But press support for the U.S. government's massive military aid to fundamentalist sectors helped – in the words of a July 26, 1993, Washington Post article – "create a monster." As the article reported, the CIA is now trying to buy back Stinger missiles it supplied to the guerrillas, fearful that yesterday's "freedom fighters" may auction them off to terrorist groups or use them to down civilian airliners, a popular pastime with the mujahedin dating to the days of the Soviet occupation.

Rosenthal did not return phone calls. Stephen Rosenfeld, now the Post's deputy editorial page editor, admits he may not have been critical enough of the guerrillas. "At that time, the emphasis was on the war and resistance, and less on internal aspects of how to build a new society," he says. "In retrospect, we can say that we all should have been wiser." Referring to current U.S. efforts to buy back the Stingers – a sale he originally supported – Rosenfeld says, "I'm glad the CIA is on the ball. I hope they succeed."

Like Grenada, Afghanistan has now lost much of its appeal for U.S. journalists. If the government there would stop trying to promote worldwide Islamic rebellion, the press would likely return to its traditional posture of "don't ask, don't tell."



Panama

Panama, another country briefly dragged into the media's glare, clearly illustrates how the "cruise ship" analogy for foreign coverage serves White House interests. During the early 1980s the media's primary interest in Panama was the security of the canal, though the Panamanian president's death in an August 1981 plane crash triggered a fleeting news spasm. In September 1985, though, things changed when the country's president, Nicolas Ardito Barletta, was forced to resign by Gen. Manuel Noriega. The Reagan administration showed its disapproval by cancelling a previously approved $5 million loan. The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post all immediately ran editorials condemning Noriega, America's longtime ally, as a foe of democracy.

The U.S. government's hostility intensified in February 1986 when Arthur Davis Jr., the newly appointed ambassador to Panama, began denouncing Noriega for human rights violations. In April, Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams made similar noises at a Senate subcommittee hearing.

Two months later, on June 12, the Noriega scandal exploded when the New York Times ran a front page story by Seymour Hersh documenting serious drug trafficking and corruption charges against the Panamanian leader. The piece was based almost entirely on ilformation from unnamed sources at the State De- partment, White House, Pentagon and intelligence agencies.

Another Hersh story on June 22 reported that the United States had "assembled conclusive evidence" that Noriega had rigged Panama's May 1984 presidential election to swing the vote to his hand-picked candidate, Barletta. This was hardly a well-kept secret. The balloting was riddled with irregularities, which were documented by a group of U.S. observers who passed on their concerns to the U.S. embassy. However, because the United States then supported Barletta, no protest was lodged; then-Secretary of State George Shultz even flew down to Panama a few months later to attend the new president's inauguration.

Like the U.S. government, the news media at the time was extremely lackadaisical in pursuing charges of electoral deceit. Journalists' accounts, while mentioning allegations of fraud, were extremely measured, and Barletta was portrayed as the legitimate winner. Other than a Los Angeles Times article by William Long in August 1984, "Charges of Vote Fraud Vex Panama," the press dropped the issue soon after Barletta's victory was announced. Furthermore, the farcical balloting elicited no comment from columnists in the four newspapers, nor a single editorial denouncing this assault on democracy. The three-member, nongovernmental U.S. observer team was not cited in any 1984 story, but Hersh trotted them all out two years later. In Hersh's June 22, 1986, piece, Jack Hood Vaughn, one of the group's members and a former U.S. ambassador to Panama, said there was "not the slightest doubt that it [the election] was stolen by the national guard."

The U.S. media's indulgent attitude toward the Panamanian vote is especially striking compared with its criticism of the Nicaraguan election held in late 1984 by the Sandinista government – the Reagan administration's bete noire – which was judged to be relatively free and fair by U.S. observer groups. The New York Times editorial page called it "a sham"; the Los Angeles Times, though a bit more restrained, said, "the electoral deck was stacked in the Sandinistas' favor"; the Post said "the Sandinistas cheated"; and, in a news story published as the votes were still being counted, the Journal said Nicaragua had "lost an opportunity to legitimize its government and rebut U.S. charges that it is bent on totalitarianism."

Hersh says his inspiration and key source for his reporting on Noriega was Roberto Eisenmann Jr., editor of the frequently censored and sometimes banned Panamanian newspaper, La Prensa. Furthermore, he says government officials didn't leak him material to telegraph their intentions; rather, he says his articles exposing Noriega's illicit activities forced the administration to drop its support for the general.

But the more pertinent question is why U.S. journalists, who filed countless stories on Noriega's misdeeds after Hersh's Panama stories appeared, had previously been so lax.

In a June 1986 story, Newsweek acknowledged that the media had been tardy in inquiring into the general's affairs – though it provided no explanation. "Noriega's opponents could not understand why the U.S. government and press had taken so long to close in on the Panamanian leader," said the magazine, quoting a Noriega rival who complained that "we've been saying these things for a long time."

After Noriega's December 1989 capture, the amount of coverage on Panama dropped abruptly. While the media have reported on some negative facts of life in post-invasion Panama – for example, that drug trafficking has increased since Noriega's departure – the bumbling, corrupt administration of President Guillermo Endara, who took office in January 1990, has been an extremely minor story.



Kuwait

In the mid-1980s, Kuwait was about as popular with the press as Grenada is today. The minimal coverage on political developments there was remarkably sympathetic, perhaps because the country was a moderate Arab state friendly to Washington and held enormous oil reserves.

An April 1985 Washington Post article by Jonathan Randal, "Rule of Law Is Kuwaiti Trademark," likened the country to "ancient Athens." Yes, Randal conceded, only 3 percent of this model democracy's population had the right to vote, criticism of the royal family was forbidden, political parties were banned and the emir had the right to dissolve parliament for as many as four years. But, in the words of a "former skeptic" he cited, "When you see..the crown prince, who is also the prime minister, having to raise his hand in parliament to be recognized by the speaker, then you begin to become a believer."

To bolster his ancient Athens analogy, Randal cited an unnamed diplomat who said there were "no Amnesty International complaints about Kuwait. No horror stories about torture and atrocities." In fact, Amnesty's annual report covering 1985 denounced Kuwaiti torture – "extraction of nails, use of electricity and sexual assaults" – kangaroo court trials of political prisoners, and an increased number of offenses punishable by death.

The U.S. press barely noticed when, in July 1986, the emir suspended Parliament and tightened press censorship. By the time American journalists got around to covering the issue, they oozed with understanding. A New York Times dispatch by John Kifner from March 1987 was typical, calling Kuwait an "air-conditioned Eden" and politely noting that "democracy took a break last summer." It was "remarkable..how little the Parliament and the outspoken newspapers are missed," wrote Kifner, citing a Kuwaiti intellectual who said, "It was very courageous of a small nation to have democracy, but I wish it had been better behaved," and a foreign resident who maintained, "Kuwaitis much prefer cash to democracy."

Later that year, when the United States began escorting Kuwaiti oil tankers through the Persian Gulf to shield them from the Iran-Iraq War, the country received a spurt of press attention. "Suddenly tiny Kuwait has become a household word in America," said a July 23 article in the Wall Street Journal, which, concisely capturing the newspaper's previous attitude toward the country, stated that "until recently, Kuwait was a largely unnoticed sheikdom... [It] pumped oil, spread the wealth among its small population and kept quiet."

The emirate moved to center stage following the Iraqi invasion on August 2, 1990, at which point the media, echoing President Bush, strongly defended Kuwaiti sovereignty and democracy – something no one previously seemed to care much about.

Since the end of the Persian Gulf War, which heralded a significant drop in Kuwaiti coverage, the press has paid only slightly more attention to the sorry state of democracy in the "air-conditioned Eden" than it did before the Iraqi invasion.

Randal, reached in Paris, says he still holds that "in the mid-1980s Kuwait, by Third World and especially by Arab standards, was a remarkably open society. I don't regret a single word in that piece." According to Randal, 1985 was the high point of Kuwaiti democracy, and the following year's crackdown came after the "terrible buffeting of that society" caused by the Iran-Iraq War. He says Kuwait was "an island of relative enlightenment" and that criticism of the country's democracy during the Persian Gulf War was partly a "bad rap" that reflected "Saddam's propaganda justifying the occupation."



Somalia

With few exceptions, Africa is rarely the subject of U.S. government concern, and hence, that of the press. The media usually turns their eyes there only after famine reaches catastrophic proportions, or to report on extensive violence. This no doubt results from the fact that the continent plays a minuscule role in U.S. economic affairs and, with the end of the Cold War, a shrinking part in foreign policy concerns as well.

Somalia received scattered coverage in the 1970s and 1980s due to its status as a major Cold War battle site, with President Mohammed Siad Barre receiving an estimated $700 million in U.S. economic and military aid during the latter decade. But the country mostly puttered about in anonymity. Between 1986 and 1990, the four newspapers dedicated a total of 56 stories to Somalia, 34 less than the number they ran on softball, a nearby heading in their annual indexes.

In 1986, Siad Barre received 99.9 percent of the votes in an obviously fraudulent election, a fact ignored by the Post, Journal and Los Angeles Times, and one which received scant notice in the New York Times. Four years later, Africa Watch released a report claiming that 50,000 civilians had been murdered by the government during a campaign to crush rebel troops. Only the Post mentioned the report, in a brief article. Attracting more attention in 1990 was the remarkable appeal of "The George Michael Sports Machine," a weekly anthology of sports highlights from the United States broadcast on Mogadishu television – the subject of a lengthy Post "Foreign Journal" report.

Coverage picked up in 1991 with the overthrow of Siad Barre and clan fighting, surged early the next year with reports on the worsening famine, and exploded after the dispatch of U.S. troops last December. This sequence of events is often cited as evidence that news coverage drives foreign policy, not the other way around. As James Schlesinger, the secretary of energy for the Carter administration, recently wrote in Foreign Affairs, "Policies seem increasingly subject..to the images flickering across the television screen... Somalia [and] Bosnia draw the attention because the cameras are there."

This interpretation, however, rests on the belief that foreign policy is driven by humanitarian impulses – with top policy makers moved to tears and action by media coverage – and not self-defined national interests. In most cases, "the cameras are there" because the U.S. government, in one form or another, got there first. For example, Angola – where in mid-1993 about 1,000 people were dying every day as a result of armed conflict, and 2 million lives are still at risk – and Liberia are in the midst of wars as brutal as the one being fought in Somalia. But these countries have not been blessed with the presence of U.S. Marines, so they continue to suffer in relative obscurity. The same can be said of another African country confronting widespread famine, the Sudan, which has been described by one U.S. diplomat as "Somalia without CNN." It's a fairly safe assumption that when U.S. forces are withdrawn from Somalia, the country will quickly plunge off U.S. news charts as well.

The U.S. media's follow-the-White-House approach greatly oversimplifies the complexity of the Third World, which is only seen in relation to how it affects the United States. Furthermore, the practice of parachuting in when the president points results in contextless, ahistorical reporting. That posture, not coincidentally, almost always puts the United States in an undeservedly favorable light. For example, despite enormous coverage, how many newspaper readers could know that part of the blame for the famines in Afric? can be traced to Western-backed policies that promoted the export of cash crops at the expense of subsistence agri- culture? Or that servicing the massive debt Africa owes to U.S. and European bankers has turned the continent into a net exporter of capital?

In the case of Somalia, past U.S. support for Siad Barre, a major factor in the current tragedy, is largely overlooked. For example, a September 24, 1992, Los Angeles Times story by Michael Hiltzik detailed Somalia's horror, stating that famine there was a political phenomenon caused by clan fighting and the war against Barre. But Hiltzik failed to mention the U.S. role, even when discussing disastrous social problems in Mozambique and Angola, two other African nations that were victims of U.S. Cold War policies. (In these cases, the United States destabilized established governments by funding right-wing guerrilla armies, both of which had notorious records of human rights violations.) Likewise, ignoring U.S. complicity, the press hardly uttered a skeptical word when President Bush portrayed the deployment of troops in Somalia as an act of spontaneous U.S. benevolence, and described the mission as "God's work."

Steve Askin, a journalist who covered Africa between 1985 and 1990 for the National Catholic Reporter, said U.S. food aid to Somalia during the mid-1980s was in large part a system of payoffs to factional leaders, some now known as "warlords," who used the money to fill their pockets and further their political aims. "I've yet to see anyone go back and discuss the U.S. role in the creation of a whole class of corrupt characters who played a major role in the destruction of that country," says Askin, who is now freelancing in Washington, D.C.

Journalists at the four surveyed newspapers defend their respective news organization's Third World coverage. Jackson Diehl, foreign editor of the Washington Post, says taking the lead from the White House is "natural to a certain extent, and a positive thing. One of our purposes is to inform debate." Diehl says the Post routinely covers major Third World countries such as Brazil, Argentina and India, but that "small countries with little trade with the U.S. and little happening just aren't of great interest." The New York Times' Treaster argues that the press "supplies the news that people need, and a lot of people think they can do without the Third World" – an attitude he deplores.

The New York Times' foreign editor, Bernard Gwertzman, concedes that during the Cold War the press covered some countries merely because they were part of the East-West rivalry. "We are American newspapers," he says, "..and cover stories that have a resonance in American politics." Beyond that, he says logistical difficulties, not editorial policy, are often responsible for lapses in his paper's Third World coverage. "I'd love to have more coverage from Kabul [the capital of Afghanistan], but it's just too dangerous," he explains. "In Indonesia we've had a lot of trouble getting visas but have done some good stories."

Wall Street Journal Foreign Editor Lee Lescaze acknowledges that the press sometimes under-reports Third World stories but also stresses that it has to provide news on countries that have strong political and economic ties with the United States. "It's an obligation, from time to time, for newspapers to visit places where the U.S. is not involved, but it's not a priority," he says. "The fact that small, poor countries are ignored is not surprising."

Lescaze's counterpart at the Los Angeles Times, Alvin Shuster, also argues that when "the government gets worked up about a situation, the press needs to explore whether its angst is justified. I don't agree that the judgment the press develops as a result of its own on-the-ground investigation is overly sympathetic [to the government]."

These explanations carry some weight. In addition, budgetary and practical constraints undoubtedly limit the media's ability to cover foreign news. The New York Times, for example, has 32 foreign correspondents who often have to cover enormous stretches of territory. Only two, who are assisted by stringers, are responsible for all of South America. Many smaller papers have no foreign correspondents, and the television networks have closed down many of their overseas bureaus.

However, those interpretations don't seem entirely sufficient. For example, according to readership surveys, interest in foreign news is substantial and growing. A 1991 poll conducted by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations found that in 1990, 36 percent of Americans were "very interested" in foreign news, up from 28 percent in 1982. Of greater importance, when a decision is made to cover a country – as it was, temporarily, in the cases cited above – news organizations invariably mobilize the human and financial resources to do the job.

While acknowledging that the media need to cover countries that have some link with the United States, critics say that journalists gauge U.S. involvement in a highly selective way. Allan Nairn, who covers foreign affairs for the New Yorker, notes that such places as Guatemala and East Timor, both generally shunned by the press, should be major news stories by Diehl's yardstick. In the former, the United States supported a military coup in 1954, provided massive aid for succeeding governments, and has traditionally been the country's major commercial partner. In the case of East Timor, the U.S. government gave the green light to the 1975 invasion by Indonesia, armed the occupation forces, and has consistently blocked U.N. condemnation of Indonesian aggression.

Furthermore, both countries have been the site of tremendous human drama and violence. During the past 15 years the Guatemalan army has assassinated about 1 percent of that country's population. Indonesian forces have killed one-third of East Timor's residents since the invasion in what Nairn calls the "largest genocide since the Nazis" (see Free Press, July/August 1992).

"The press takes its cue from Washington, and Washington obviously puts the spotlight on places where it looks good and not places where it is involved in terrible crimes," Nairn says. "As a result, you can find an occasional story on Guatemala and East Timor, but they have never become part of the national debate. Most Americans have absolutely no idea of what's been going on in those places."

Mark Hertsgaard, who writes for the New Yorker and Vanity Fair, agrees that the media must respond when the White House dispatches troops overseas – or becomes more generally involved in another country's affairs – but says journalists should try to raise issues independently and with a different measure of importance: ethics and morality. "Virtually the only stories you find in American newspapers about the Sudan concern U.S. accusations that it harbors terrorists," he says. "I'd give that a couple of inches versus the human suffering caused by the famine. That's a far more important story than the narrow and self-serving perspective offered by the government."

When asked about coverage of the Sudan, Gwertzman says his paper has had difficulties getting reporters into parts of the country and that a Times correspondent was arrested in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, about 18 months ago. Lescaze concurs that the Sudan is badly undercovered, but says the "sad fact" is, "once you've covered human tragedy it's hard to go back and do the same story. You have to be very creative to come up with a second and third approach."

The case of Guatemala, cited by Nairn, is particularly illustrative when compared with its neighbor, Nicaragua, one of the most heavily covered Third World countries in the 1980s. Before the Sandinista revolution in 1979, thanks to the follow-the-chief-passenger principle, that country barely registered on the media's Richter scale. Between 1957 and 1977, when ruled by the pro-American Somoza family, the Wall Street Journal ran 44 stories on the country, of which 26 were on the subject of bank loans. Human rights problems, rampant under the Somozas and an obsessive media focus after the revolution, were virtually unmentioned. The pattern is similar, though not nearly as extreme, at the other three papers. Lescaze today concedes that there should have been more coverage of the Somozas' "appalling kleptocracy."

But it is perhaps by looking at the Caribbean that the implicit political slant of the media's coverage is best seen. Last year, the four surveyed newspapers published about 16 times as many stories on Cuba than on Jamaica, another important country in the region. Cuba was the topic of approximately 15 times as many stories as Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth with millions of its people living in the United States and the site of an upcoming plebiscite to determine the future of its political status.

The unmistakable conclusion is that if Fidel Castro had been born 100 miles or so east of Cuba, the U.S. press would have closely tracked political developments in the Dominican Republic these past 30 years, with editorial page writers endlessly denouncing "Santo Domingo's exploitation of the region's social inequalities." Cuba might still be ruled by the sometimes heavy-handed but largely benign Batista family, and hence, would not be a subject of great interest to the U.S. press. l

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